SAO PAULO — There’s an old saying in Brazilian soccer: some things only happen to Botafogo.
The reference to the club’s historic lack of luck has never rung more true than this year.
The club of World Cup winning greats like Mané Garrincha, Jairzinho and Mário Zagallo squandered a 13-point lead in the Brazilian league and now Palmeiras is very likely to defend its title on Wednesday. It’s the first time a team has lost such a big advantage in the South American nation’s top flight.
The last round will take place without any hopes for Botafogo fans at Internacional but to finish in fourth position, which would be enough to secure a direct spot at the next Copa Libertadores. The Rio de Janeiro club is currently fifth.
Botafogo was on the top of the standings for 31 of 38 rounds, giving long-suffering supporters confidence their club would lift its first national title since 1995.
But now Palmeiras is in a position where it doesn’t necessarily have to win its last game to secure another title. Even with a loss at Cruzeiro, Palmerias can clinch the league as long as Atletico Mineiro doesn’t erase a differential of eight goals.
Flamengo has a slim title chance, but that depends on an even more unlikely combination of results involving other teams.
Botafogo’s title hopes vanished for the season after a 0-0 draw with Cruzeiro on Sunday, a match that ended with some supporters hurling insults at players and burning team shirts at the Nilton Santos Stadium.
Only a few seasons ago the fans would have been excited just to finish near the top. But after American businessman John Textor bought the club’s soccer division last year, expectations rose dramatically.
“We needed to be a little bit more humble. We needed to read every match, read the moment of the club,” veteran striker Diego Costa, who arrived in the middle of the season, told journalists on Sunday. “We needed to leave our ego outside so we could achieve better results. I hope this is a good teaching for all those who are here. Soccer makes you pay.”
It was against Wednesday’ rival, Internacional, that Botafogo achieved its 13-point advantage on Aug. 12. By then, some fans had tattooed the Brasileirao trophy on their bodies, laughed at rivals losing points to relegation contenders and started debating what round the team would be crowned.
“Follow the leader!,” Botafogo fans chanted after every win by their team of little known players such as goalkeeper Lucas Perri, defender Adryelson, midfielder Eduardo and striker Segovinha.
But then … it was some-things-only-happen-to-Botafogo time.
Botafogo failed to win its 10 latest matches in the competition. Last week, the team scored an apparent winner from the spot against relegated Coritiba in the 90th minute, only to see their opponents equalize 49 seconds later.
“Making fun of a Botafogo fan today is like finding a dead body on the sidewalk, kick it and run away laughing,” said social media mogul Felipe Neto, one of the club’s most popular supporters. “The dead body can no longer feel anything.”
Botafogo’s downfall accelerated at the end of June after Portuguese coach Luis Castro left for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal following a call from Cristiano Ronaldo. Castro’s replacements, Bruno Lage, Lucio Flavio and Tiago Nunes weren’t able to keep up the team’s fighting spirit and attacking mentality.
Some of Botafogo’s losses came in such shocking fashion that rival fans pitied the club’s fate.
One glaring example was a home match against Palmeiras on Nov. 1, when Botafogo was already in a dwindling form but still could have extended its lead in the league to six points. The team led 3-0 after 37 minutes. With the score at 3-1, the Rio team was awarded a penalty in the 82nd minute but leading scorer Tiquinho Soares missed from the spot.
Palmeiras then scored three goals in 16 minutes to shock the hosts.
Botafogo had a 3-1 advantage once again a few days later against Gremio, but the gauchos won 4-3 with a hat-trick by veteran Luis Suárez. The Uruguayan wasn’t expected to play because Botafogo’s stadium has an artificial grass pitch, which the striker avoids to spare his knees. But the game was moved to the Sao Januario Stadium, with a regular pitch, due to a concert at the Nilton Santos Stadium that weekend.
Botafogo also conceded late goals to drop points against Bragantino, Fortaleza and Santos.
Textor has accused the Brazilian soccer confederation CBF, which organizes of the league, of match-fixing, without providing any evidence.
Brazil’s TV Globo reported Tuesday that Textor is considering a lawsuit against the soccer body. CBF is already suing Textor for his remarks.
Humor is sometimes the only way fans have found to deal with Botafogo’s failures. That is how comedian Marcelo Adnet has helped other supporters deal with the massive defeat.
“Ten matches without winning. It is all back to normal,” Adnet, adopting the persona of one his characters, a club fanatic, joked. “Textor made Botafogo more international than ever. Now we are an embarrassment all over the world.”